Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
If you must dress up as Wario for a go-kart tour of Tokyo, please be safe.
Let's-a-go! Except, not so fast, Mario.
By now, locals in Japan are used to seeing foreigners zipping through Tokyo in bright red go-karts. Short of tossing banana peels at their rivals, tourists have been satisfying their need for speed by taking Nintendo’s beloved Mario Kart franchise to the city streets. They often don onesies to resemble characters like Mario, Yoshi, and Princess Peach, and cruise alongside actual, real-world traffic, smiling and waving to the commuters around them.
It’s one of Japan’s hottest attractions amid a tourism boom—to the frustration of some locals. And to the transport ministry, which said this week that it will tighten safety regulations around go-karts when it revises the country’s Road Transport Vehicle Act in March, according to the national newspaper The Japan Times.
“It’s dangerous as other cars cannot see them because of their low heights,” one ministry official told Agence France-Presse. The proposed rules, according to AFP, will require all go-karts to be at least one meter off the ground and that the driving wheel be made made of soft material to prevent injuries. Among the most important rules: Drivers will finally have to buckle up—something that wasn’t compulsory before. (Go-karts are in the same classification of mopeds, which enjoy more lax regulations under Japan’s traffic laws.)
Indeed, it’s all fun and games until a tourist drives her go-kart onto the sidewalk and crashes into a police station. Or until another one manages to hit a parked car. The Times reported in May that in the span of two months, Tokyo police have recorded a dozen such incidents, 10 of which involved foreign tourists and none of which involved any fatalities. That number is still noticeable, though, in a city that has among the lowest rate of traffic-related deaths in the world.
Tokyo police have been urging go-kart providers like MariCart to make their services safer by encouraging customers to wear protective gears like helmets and to put their smartphones away during the rides. The companies do offer safety briefings, but so far the helmets are still optional, and, judging by the amount of Wario selfies on the internet, the smartphones aren’t going away. And while drivers have to carry a local or international driving license, the Times reported that at least one tourist was given the OK to drive even though he didn’t have either.
The ironic thing is that, at least according to one study, games like Mario Kart are supposed to make people better drivers. But it’s understandable: This, for many, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So how can you not go just a little wild dressed up as the world’s most beloved Italian plumber (or whatever his profession is these days), and in a country that adores him so much that someone managed to convince the usually stoic Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to emerge from a green sewage pipe as “Abe Mario” to announce the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Will the new regulations stymie the thrill for tourists? Maybe a little. Will they make the whole thing less of a nuisance for locals? Arguably.
Word on the street is that Nintendo, who has sued MariCart for copyright infringement, plans on making its own track in the much-anticipated Nintendo theme park—one where you can drift and might even get to throw banana peels at one another. Until then, we’ll just keep dreaming about cruising the Rainbow Road.